Visiting The Christian Community In Iraq

Christian Community in Iraq, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
Before Iraq was conquered by the Arabs in the seventh century, it was one of the oldest centers of Christianity in the world. Even after the Arab conquest, Christians made up a sizable minority of the population – sometimes tolerated, sometimes persecuted, but always surviving.

Now it’s facing its biggest threat in centuries.

The Christian Community in Iraq is a lot smaller than it was in 2003 when the Coalition invaded. During the occupation, radical Muslims claimed the Christians were helping the invaders and used this as an excuse to attack them. Churches and shops were bombed and individual Christians were murdered or told to leave on pain of death.

In an interview with the BBC, the priest at St Joseph’s Chaldean Church in Baghdad said that in the past nine years his parish has shrunk from 1,200 families to 300. The New York Times reports that before the war the Christian population was estimated to be as high as 1.4 million, and has now dropped to less than 500,000.

I met few Christians in my 17 days in Iraq other than some shopkeepers and the owners of a liquor store when I went on a beer run in Basra. I was anxious to see some of the early medieval centers of Christianity that make the country so important to Church history. The Christian community in Iraq is splintered into more than a dozen different churches, including the Assyrian Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, and many more. Many of their rites and beliefs are from a markedly different religious tradition than what we are familiar with in the West.

Above is a photo of the entrance to Mar Mattai monastery, run by the Syrian Orthodox Church. Located in Kurdistan in the far north of the country, it sits on the slopes of Mt. Maqloub. It was founded in 363 A.D. by the Saint Mar Mattai and is thus one of the oldest monasteries in existence.

Much of the monastery is modern, with a few crumbling ruins dotting the slopes to hint at its long history. The assistant abbot welcomed us in careful, practiced English and told us how the saint converted Prince Behnam and Princess Sarah from paganism to Christianity. Sarah had been suffering from leprosy and was miraculously cured after her conversion.

%Gallery-172437%When their father King Senchareb found out, he had them put to death. He soon regretted his act, became a Christian himself, and as penance built Mar Behnam Monastery.

This monastery is much better preserved. Its stone interior is intricately carved in the style of the Atabek Emirate, which lasted from the 11th to the 13th centuries before being wiped out by the Mongols. The style is a strange one: a sort of mix of Turkish design with Christian symbolism and elements from ancient Assyrian art. See the gallery for some images, and there are more at this site. St. Behnam monastery survived the Mongol invasion and even managed to make a few converts. Some of the inscriptions in the crypt are in Mongolian.

Christian community in Iraq, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travelWalking through these two monasteries I could feel the absence left by the departure of so many from the community. We saw almost no one, and the monasteries felt more like museums than places of worship. Perhaps we just went on quiet days. Both are centers for pilgrimage, though, so I was hoping to meet and talk with pilgrims like I had at the Shia holy places. But it was not to be.

While the situation for Christians, indeed all Iraqis, has calmed down considerably in the past couple of years, the persecutions continue. Iraq has broken down along sectarian lines, with Sunni and Shia Muslims fighting it out and Christians being targeted by radical Muslims.

Being such a small minority, it’s difficult for the Christian community to defend itself. Government soldiers and police guard churches and monasteries, and man checkpoints at the edges of Christian neighborhoods, but as with sectarian attacks against Muslims, the terrorists often find a way to hit their targets.

There’s hope, though. As we studied the inscriptions in the crypt of St. Behnam’s monastery, I noticed our guide and one of our guards, both Muslims, lighting candles. I went over to the guide, who I knew to be a devout Shia, and asked him why he was lighting candles in a Christian holy spot.

“In my office there are a lot of Christian women. They asked me to light candles for them,” he replied as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

This man, who went off to pray every time we visited a mosque, saw no conflict with his faith in doing this or with working with Christian women. If his tolerance can become common enough to push out the intolerant radicals, the Christian community in Iraq may survive after all.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Kurdistan: The Other Iraq!”

[All photos by Sean McLachlan]

Visiting Ur, Ctesiphon, And Babylon In Iraq


Iraq is an ancient land. It’s seen a lot of civilizations come and go and each one has left behind spectacular monuments and rare treasures. On a recent visit, I had the privilege to experience many of these sites. Last time, I talked about the monuments of the Assyrian Empire. Today, I want to talk about three more of Iraq’s ancient wonders.

Perhaps the most famous is Babylon. It was the political and spiritual capital of southern Mesopotamia starting with the ruler Hammurabi (ruled 1792-1550 B.C.), the same king who created the famous law code. The city had its ups and downs but reached a peak under Nebuchadnezzar II (ruled 604-562 B.C.).

Babylon was home to the fabled Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens. Equally impressive were its city walls, which stretched for 8 kilometers. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus said they were wide enough on top to allow a four-horse chariot to turn around.

The story of the Tower of Babel may have been inspired by a giant stepped pyramid called a ziggurat. It was a temple to the god Marduk and stood 300 feet high. It was later quarried for its baked bricks and there’s little left. The Hanging Gardens have also vanished. What does remain are the city walls and the fabulous Ishtar Gate with its glazed brick reliefs of bulls and dragons. It was through this gate that the images of the gods would be taken in procession. The name Babylon means “the gate of the gods.”

The gate was excavated by a German team in the early 20th century and carted back to Staatliche Museen in Berlin. The gate at Babylon today is a modern reconstruction, and it’s not even full size. Far more impressive are the city walls, also reconstructed, and the original processional way, which, like the Ishtar Gate, is decorated with strange beasts.

Part of the original street level of the processional way remains – a flat surface of bitumen, an early form of asphalt. Strange to say, I found this simple stretch of pavement one of the most evocative sights in a country filled with ancient treasures. People walked along here more than 2,500 years ago, and there it was, stretched out before me. I desperately wanted to vault over the fence and stroll down the road, but even Iraq’s archaeological sites have guards and regulations. What a pity.

Babylon’s reconstruction was done under the rule of Saddam Hussein, who fancied himself one of the great kings of Mesopotamia. He got the cruelty part down pat, but missed out on the greatness. He couldn’t even do a decent reconstruction. Against the advice of the archaeological community, he built the new walls atop the originals and obliterated much of the ancient remains. In true ancient style he had bricks bearing his name used in the building. And now in true ancient style, his people have been busy erasing his name ever since his inglorious end. One of Saddam’s palaces stands on a hill overlooking the site – an empty shell.

%Gallery-172219%Ur, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
When Babylon was enjoying its heyday, the Sumerian city of Ur was already ancient. Its foundation is lost in time, stretching back at least seven thousand years. The city grew steadily and became the center of the most sophisticated civilization the world had yet seen. Writing thrived here, with scribes producing countless clay tablets written in cuneiform, a complex script of wedge-shaped impressions.

The first dynasty of Ur, starting in the 26th century B.C., was hugely wealthy and powerful. Some of Sumer’s best-known treasures come from the royal tombs dating to this period, such as elaborately decorated harps, the Royal Standard decorated with scenes of war and peace, and delicate gold jewelry from the queens, princesses and their female servants. The British Museum now owns many of them. Click the link for an amazing slideshow.

The Third Dynasty was even greater than the First and saw a flourishing of the arts and science. It also created the first known law code, the Code of Ur-Nammu, 300 years before the Code of Hammurabi. This dynasty completely rebuilt Ur and also put up the Great Ziggurat, pictured above, which got a modern facelift courtesy of Saddam Hussein.

One archaeologist I met back in the U.S. told me that during the war, Saddam parked some of his fighter planes next to the ziggurat, hoping they’d be safer there than in the nearby air force base. They got strafed by an A-10 and some of the bullets hit the ziggurat. I intended on checking for bullet holes but got so entranced with where I was that I forgot to. Maybe next time.

Zipping forward several centuries we come to Ctesiphon, the capital of the Parthian Empire in the first century B.C. and later the Sassanid Persian Empire. All that’s visible today is the Taq-i Kisra, shown below. This was an iwan, or great hall, built by the Sassanids in the sixth century A.D. The building was a royal winter residence and it was here in the iwan that this king would sit on his throne and rule his kingdom. The giant brick vault soars 110 feet into the air and used no reinforcement. It’s the largest of its kind ever built and despite all the years and wars and invasions, it’s still standing.

All of these sites and many more have suffered from looting and neglect in the tough years since the invasion. Luckily, a dedicated band of Iraqi and foreign archaeologists have been busy preserving them. New excavations have started and hopefully, as more incredible finds are uncovered, Iraq’s ancient past will come to light.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “The Christian Community Of Iraq!”

[All photos by Sean McLachlan]

Ctesiphon, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel

Visiting The Great Assyrian Sites Of Iraq

Assyrian, Assur, Iraq. Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
This Iraqi policeman is busy texting at one of the great archaeological sites of his country – Assur, the first capital of the Assyrian Empire.

Assur was founded at least as early as 2400 B.C., but it wasn’t until the reign of the Assyrian king Shamshi-Adad (ruled 1809-1776 B.C.) that it became the capital of a true empire. Shamshi-Adad’s armies took over the bulk of Mesopotamia, as well as Syria and Asia Minor.

By then Assur was a magnificent place, having had centuries of kings lavishing it with attention. Several large temples dominated the site, including one for the goddess Ishtar and another for the city’s god Assur, who rose to become one of the most important gods in the Assyrian pantheon thanks to the city’s fortunes. Rising above all was a ziggurat, a stepped pyramid atop which once stood a temple. Shamshi-Adad’s conquests weren’t to last and the empire soon fell to the Babylonians. The Assyrian Empire had to be rebuilt by later kings.

Like with many Mesopotamian sites, Assur is in a sad state today. The land has very little stone, so most buildings were constructed with mud brick, which has a bad habit of melting away in the rain, even the sparse rain of Mesopotamia. Thus the ziggurat looks like a big lumpy hill, and we can only see the foundations of the temples and palaces thanks to the meticulous excavations of generations of archaeologists. Despite the poor preservation, there’s still a magical quality to the place with the Tigris River flowing lazily by and so much history underfoot.

%Gallery-171929%Another important Assyrian site is Nimrud, established as the imperial capital by King Ashurnasirpal II (ruled 883-859 B.C.). His palace was decorated with lively bas-reliefs showing him hunting, vanquishing his enemies. This site has more to see thanks to the intact stone carvings and several reconstructed buildings. A pair of giant, winged bulls flank the entrance, and several important carvings still line the walls. Sadly, one that showed the king standing before a sacred tree with the god Assur hovering above was smashed and parts of it stolen during the looting that took place during the 2003 invasion.

The Assyrians have the reputation of being the bullies of the ancient world, always ready to lay waste to a city, salt the fields, and flay their enemies. This is partially due to their unsympathetic treatment in the Bible and partially to the magnificent bas-reliefs they carved to show off the bloody results of their conquests. The Assyrians were great warriors, but they were no more cruel than any other ancient empire and they achieved a high level of artistic development.

They also valued learning. At Nineveh, another Assyrian site in Iraq, archaeologists discovered a vast library filled with texts on astronomy, medicine, geography and history, as well as the day-to-day functioning of the empire. Ancient classics such as “The Epic of Gilgamesh” were copied and read, and new works were written. Far more than simple thugs, the Assyrians were one of the great empires of the ancient world.

If you can’t make it to Iraq, several museums in the West have excellent Assyrian collections, including the British Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris, and the Met in New York City.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Visiting Ur, Ctesiphon, and Babylon!”

[Photos by Sean McLachlan]

Assyrian, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel

Hostility And Smiles On The Streets Of Nasiriyah, Iraq

Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel, Nasiriyah
There comes a time in every trip when the honeymoon ends. The initial romance of being in a new place wears off and you begin to notice the pushy vendors and the dirty hotel rooms. The first blush of love fades like a flower in autumn, hit by the cold winter wind of reality.

My honeymoon with Iraq didn’t end with tourist hucksters or filthy hotel rooms – so far we’d had none of those. My honeymoon with Iraq ended when I saw the crater in front of my hotel in Nasiriyah.

“Car bomb last month,” the guard explained as he sat in his metal folding chair outside the front door, Kalashnikov resting in his lap. “It kill two men and two babies. One man a teacher.”

We had just come out of our hotel to meet a squad of policemen, all wearing Kevlar and toting the ubiquitous AK-47. Our tour leader, Geoff, came up to me.

“This is our escort,” he said. “Let’s go for a walk around town.”

Yeah, let’s do that.

Nasiriyah, a city of half a million people on the Euphrates River 225 miles southeast of Baghdad, has been through a lot in the past 20 years. It shows. Many buildings, like the old cinema shown above, are pockmarked by small arms fire. The bridges that spanned the river were destroyed during the invasion and replaced with pontoon bridges. Blast walls and barbed wire are even more common here than the rest of Iraq.

There were only four of us on the tour now, the other six had opted for the shorter tour and were now safely home. With half a dozen police, two guards from the Interior Ministry, and a translator, our little band of foreigners looked far more important than we were. I didn’t like that. Important people are targets. That’s why the bomber set off his explosives in front of our hotel – it’s the nicest in town.

%Gallery-171836%The streets of Iraq all look pretty much the same – concrete buildings and blast walls. Some municipalities have gussied up the sidewalks with potted plants and colored bricks, but most places just have the same grim gray surfaces. We walked through this dreary landscape, the police forming a large circle around us and keeping a tense eye on every passerby.

Suddenly an iron gate opened across the street and a crowd of teenage schoolgirls came out, all neatly dressed in blue uniforms and matching headscarves. They were headed in our direction and as they paced us on the opposite side of the street we got a lot of sidelong glances and giggles. I was even graced with a smile. Maybe Nasiriyah wasn’t such a bad place after all.

One thoughtless member of our group snapped a photo of them and got frowns in return. Idiot. Do you take photos of schoolgirls back home in England? Luckily for him no irate Muslim father came over to defend the family honor. That would have been fun to see.

The police hustled us into a busy market and their tension ratcheted up noticeably. There were few smiles or welcomes here. People gave us hard looks or long, studying stares. It reminded me of the Sunni Triangle. The Sunnis had suffered the worst under the invasion and after the change of Iraq’s power structure in favor of the Shia. Nasiriyah, however, was mostly Shia.

So why the hostility? Perhaps it was the heavy losses the local Shias took when they rebelled against Saddam and the West did nothing to help. The city was also the scene of a hard-fought battle in the 2003 invasion over the control of those long-gone bridges. Maybe it was the police escort that soured people to us. Maybe it was that we were being hustled along and didn’t have the opportunity to break the ice.

That opportunity came in the middle of the marketplace. Our guide ushered us into a shop as the cops guarded the door. I took one look at the shelves and decided to join the cops on the street. The shop was filled with tourist dreck – cheap tin ashtrays sporting the Iraqi flag and plastic minarets of Samarra. Who sells tourist trash when there are no tourists?

I stepped back onto the sidewalk and one of the cops gave me a dubious look before swiveling around to scan the crowd. From an alley a few steps to my right, a little boy peeked at me. Another little boy peeked around him, and then another. Big brown eyes studied me. Unlike the adults on the street, who gave the half-circle of policemen a wide berth, the kids didn’t seem to notice my escort at all.

They ducked back out of sight. I could hear them calling to their friends and in a second a whole crowd of kids burst out of the alley. They stared at me, blinking, unsure, and then one of them pushed another up to me. That one laughed, spun back around, and pushed his friend toward me. In a second, the whole lot of them descended into a giggling riot in miniature, each one trying to push another up to the strange apparition in their street.

I picked one, knelt down in front of him and said, “Hello.”

The kid fled to the back of the crowd. One of the braver ones came up to me.

“Nasiriya is my home. Where are you from?”

“I’m from Canada. What’s your name?”

Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel, NasiriyahThat’s all it took. Suddenly I was giving an English lesson to a dozen entranced children. The passersby gave me amused glances. One guy came up with his little girl in his arms and asked me to take a photo. Even the cops eased up a little.

As we talked I noticed a couple of the kids standing in front of the alley were looking up and shouting angrily. I looked around the corner. A young boy, maybe 10 years old, sat on the roof two stories above. He extended his arm over the narrow ally, a bottle held in his little hand. He looked me right in the eye, the corners of his mouth turned upwards. But he wasn’t smiling.

“Is that for me?” I asked.

His expression didn’t change.

In another time and another place I might have stepped into the alley and called his bluff. I decided to stay in the street. I wasn’t sure people bluffed here.

Little hands tugged me away from the alley.

“Photo! Photo!” the gaggle of kids demanded. I raised my camera and snapped a shot, then showed them the picture as they squealed with glee.

“One more! One more!”

My travel companions came out of the shop and I said a quick goodbye to my little buddies as the cops hustled us down the street. Soon a tug of war developed between us. The police wanted us to hurry, but I and the others kept slowing down to look in windows and talk with shopkeepers. I peered into one storefront and spotted walls covered in artwork. That stopped me in my tracks. An artist’s studio? Here?

I entered, greeting the three men inside. One sat behind a desk sketching a group of galloping horses. He looked up and smiled.

“Welcome! Come in,” he rose and shook my hand. “Wait!”

He sat down again and made a few more strokes of his pencil. When the picture was done to his satisfaction he tore it from the sketch pad and offered it to me with a flourish.

“For you. To remember Iraq.”

We all started talking. He was a prominent local artist and invited me to his exhibition opening the next morning. One of his friends was an artist too, the other a teacher. We talked of his paintings, which ranged in style from Daliesque surrealism to sharp-eyed realism, and the conversation expanded to a dozen different subjects.

And for a moment everything was OK. I’d found one of those oases that exist in every city, no matter what the people have been through, a place where art and culture and books have value and meaning. A place where people who share no religion or heritage or life experiences in common can be fast friends because of their mutual love for those precious things that separate civilization from savagery.

I’d found the exact place in Iraq I wanted to be. The conversation soared, both sides eager to connect, and I thought back on the other places like this I’d found. At a Bulgarian university and an Ethiopian birtcha. At late-night Madrid literary bars and hick towns in Missouri. In fact, I’d found them everywhere. The only difference was that in some places it took a little longer.

A policeman trudged into the studio, looking as out of place as a grenade in a sack of Easter eggs. He gestured for me to follow him. He’d been doing that for the past five minutes but now he really meant it.

It was time to go. I would not be attending that art opening. That hadn’t been pre-approved and stamped and filed and scheduled by the local authorities.

There comes a time in every trip when the honeymoon ends. The champagne has been drunk, the cake is all gone, and it’s time to return the keys to the bridal suite. Now comes the long, tough reality of learning just what you’ve signed up for. Like with marriage it isn’t always easy, but getting to know a country for what it is, not what you hoped it would be, can be a lot more rewarding.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Visiting The Great Ancient Sites Of Iraq!”

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Beer Run In Basra

Basra, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
We’d been on the road in Iraq for a week, and after inhaling ten pounds of desert sand each, we really needed a beer. Luckily we were in Basra, and our tour leader Geoff knew a good place to buy liquor under the counter. So after a day of seeing the historic quarter and taking a boat trip along the Shatt al-Arab, a few of us ditched our guards and headed out into town.

Ditched our guards? In Iraq??? Sure. Basra is a pretty safe town and our Muslim guards from the Ministry of Interior wouldn’t have approved of us going on a beer run. Besides, what’s the worst that could happen? The last time I went off without my guards I nearly got arrested, but that wasn’t so bad. I even got to meet a general.

Geoff led the way. We passed down some quiet back streets flanked by crumbling concrete buildings. The few passersby didn’t seem to take much notice of us. This is common in Iraq. They’re looking at you but don’t make a show of it. If you wave and say hello, though, they’ll respond warmly.

We ended up at a little corner grocery store. A few dusty boxes of tea and some cans of soup with faded, peeling labels sat on the shelves. It didn’t look like this place had sold any groceries for a decade. It was one of the least convincing facades I’ve ever seen.

%Gallery-171530%We walked up to the counter and asked for beer. The two middle-aged men behind the counter didn’t bat an eyelid. They named the price, we handed over the money, and one of them walked out of the store.

“He will be back in one minute,” the owner said. “Where are you from?”

Basra, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travelWe replied and had the usual friendly conversation of “Welcome to Iraq” and “How do you like my country?” Lots of smiles and handshakes. Anyone who has traveled knows these conversations. They quickly get repetitive but they’re good for international relations. Iraqis and Westerners could do with a few more friendly conversations.

“We are Christians,” he told us.

We nodded. The liquor sellers in Iraq tend to be from the Christian or Yazidi minorities. They still suffer harassment, even though they aren’t breaking the rules of their religion. In some places liquor sales are strictly forbidden by self-appointed vice squads. In other places like Basra it happens in a semi-secretive fashion with everyone turning a blind eye, like with the pot dealer at a university dorm. In Baghdad the liquor stores operate out in the open. It all depends on which of Iraq’s countless factions controls that area.

The guy returned with a bulging plastic bag filled with cold cans of Turkish beer. The owner cut the conversation short.

“You go now,” he told us. Having foreigners in the store was attracting attention. People on the sidewalk peered through the glass door as they passed by. A group of guys across the street stood staring. One made a call on his mobile phone. I looked right at him and he looked right back at me, expressionless.

We thanked the shopkeepers and left. I volunteered to carry the bag. I figured if we ran into trouble I could use it as a club. A dozen beer cans upside the head will stop just about anybody.

It was the only weapon I ever carried in Iraq and I never got to use it. Those guys across the street were simply curious. The one with the phone wasn’t calling in a hit squad. We got back to our hotel with no trouble at all – except for getting lost. And what’s the point of traveling if you don’t get to ask for directions in Basra with a bag full of beer in your hand?

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Hostility And Smiles On The Streets Of Nasiriyah, Iraq!”

[Photo by Sean McLachlan. This is actually a liquor store in Baghdad that runs much more openly. I didn’t get a photo of the Basra folks. They weren’t exactly in a photogenic mood.]